In Arnold’s case, that woman was his wife, the beautiful, headstrong and ultimately treacherous Peggy Shippen. In the traditional history of Arnold’s treasonous defection to the British in our War of Independence, Peggy is treated as an ill-starred but largely innocent footnote.
The standard narrative of their marriage is that while Peggy was from a wealthy Philadelphia family with loyalist sympathies, her husband’s decision to switch sides largely stemmed from his distress at being insufficiently rewarded for his battlefield triumphs in the patriot cause. That is true as far as it goes.
But with exhaustive research and a lively writing style, authors Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case make a convincing case that Peggy clearly was the final motivating force that transformed Benedict Arnold from the most audacious and successful battlefield commander the American patriots had in the Revolution into a figure of such hatred that his name became forever a synonym for treason and treachery.
Also just as clearly, the authors had a good time digging out and writing Peggy’s story. Mr. Jacob is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago newspaperman who pens a history column for the Chicago Tribune, while Mr. Case is an investment-firm lawyer who invested an amateur historian’s zeal in documenting Peggy’s fascinating personal life.
Together, they make a case that she was one of the most significant women in America’s founding history. She may not have been a particularly good person in many ways, but she surely was significant.
Was Peggy Shippen the most beautiful woman in America in her day? Probably. Even matched against today’s rather more pneumatic standards of feminine pulchritude, the available portraits of Peggy show her to have been an extremely attractive young woman: finely featured, fair-haired and with eyes that sparkled with a spirit that was saucy and, frankly, sexual, yet compellingly vulnerable.
But she had other qualities, too. The Shippen clan was an extended family of Quaker merchants and investors who had come to America in the late 1600s. By 1760, when Peggy was born, the family had become so successful it had shed the rigors of Quaker life and converted to the Church of England. So Peggy was raised in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia — the second-largest British city outside of London — in the company of the daughters of other wealthy men.
She was privately tutored, doted upon by the men in her family and idolized by the young swains of Philadelphia’s highly stratified upper class. Small wonder she also was spoiled and had a reputation from age 17 onward for having the skill of manipulating the romantically inclined. Few men could resist her.
Our now-sanctified War of Independence was in reality a nasty civil war that put the entire Shippen family — with its extensive business ties to Mother England — in considerable peril and uncertainty. Rather than choose sides, Peggy’s father and uncles tried to hedge their bets in a futile effort to remain neutral and risk-free. Instead, they were suspected (probably rightly) of being loyalists. Certainly Peggy and her little circle of pampered, bright young society girls found the war to be an awful annoyance that disrupted their schedule of balls and picnics and at-homes with local lads who might make advantageous husbands.
But the war also brought to Philadelphia and into Peggy’s life two men who would change her forever, even as she changed their lives. When the British captured what was the rebel capital city in the perilous autumn of 1777, they brought to town a glamorously handsome, artistically inclined, romantically tempered and thoroughly irresistible young officer named John Andre.
All the Society Hill girls immediately swooned over Capt. Andre, who had moved into Benjamin Franklin’s house and was a leader in staging the elaborate theatricals and balls that made life worth living. Andre loved all the Philadelphia girls, too, but most especially Peggy Shippen.
The fortunes of war sent the British and Andre back to New York, where he became a major and the chief aide to commander Sir Henry Clinton. But such was the informality of that war that the two maintained an ever-affectionate correspondence. By the summer of 1778, Peggy was being besieged by yet another suitor, one who would not be denied. His name was Benedict Arnold.
Arnold was an unprincipled jerk all his life. Before the war, he had been largely unsuccessful in most ventures, from farmer to druggist to real estate developer. He had a terrible temper matched only by an unquenchable greed. The result was a hotheaded, quarrelsome man who was perpetually defending his imagined honor even as he schemed from one illegal plot to another.
But like many other of our founder generals, Arnold knew how to lead men into the maelstrom of battle and had run up an impressive string of victories (and twice as many critics and enemies) by the time he was severely wounded in the leg at his greatest triumph, at the Battle of Saratoga.
Arnold overcame Shippen family doubts and married Peggy in the spring of 1779 while he was recuperating (and embroiled in black-marketeering) as military governor of Philadelphia. The authors make a convincing case that Arnold’s greed and Peggy’s urging were what caused him to switch sides.
I won’t spoil for the reader the exciting thriller that unfolds during this treachery, but Peggy clearly is a full partner in the drama, which, the authors show, could have caused the collapse of the patriot cause. Instead, poor John Andre was hanged as a spy and Arnold spent the rest of his life squabbling over money.
James Srodes is the author of “Franklin, the Essential Founding Father” (Regnery, 2003).
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